More than just a buzzword, Industry 4.0 (sometimes labelled the Industrial Internet of Things) describes what others refer to as the fourth industrial revolution. We are already seeing many examples of the digitized smart factory and there are plenty more to come.

Industry 4.0 represents the sum of many innovations, from sensors and big data analytics to communications networks and cloud services. It's often described as the digitization of manufacturing, where cyber-physical systems can constantly communicate with each other, the goods they produce, and/or the people that run them.

What's more, these systems can teach themselves to adapt to conditions; order their own parts; and even plan their own maintenance and repairs. At the heart of this movement is what's happening on the robotics scene.

In fact, robotics has gone through its own evolution, says Peter Fitzgerald, general manager for Ontario-based Fanuc Canada. According to Fitzgerald, the first robots in the 1950s had numerical controls that allow robots to perform simple, repeatable, reliable motions. "Robotics 2.0" arrived in 1980. At that point, integration allowed them to do more wide-ranging functions, like welding or painting cars on an assembly line, cutting metal, or picking and packing.

Robotics 4.0 – new levels of sophistication

In 2010, intelligent sensing allowed systems to "see", so operations could improve accuracy, reduce time to market, and generally move faster and more efficiently.

"We are just now entering Robotics 4.0 where systems can easily and safety connect and collaborate with other robots and humans to complete work and creatively solve problems," Fitzgerald explained. "Now systems can talk, see, touch, feel and think."

Reaching the level of functionality and sophistication needed in an Industry 4.0 world is not a job that can be handled alone. There is now a wide-reaching and ever-growing network of partners involved in furthering the cause. They include start-up communities, government agencies, engineering and IT services providers and R&D labs. "Fanuc works with hundreds of integrators to help solve manufacturing problems," Fitzgerald said.

Festo Canada, a global manufacturer of process control and factory automation solutions, is a good example of company at the heart of the partner ecosystem. That's because advanced technology is becoming vital to competitive survival, explains Roger Hallett, president and CEO of Mississauga, Ontario-based Festo Canada.

A custom made consumer solution made by Festo.
A Festo made 'Consumer Solutions' robot.
New demands are demanding new technologies. It's clear that business and science must be partnered to realize Industry 4.0. Everyone understands the return on investment.

Culture of innovation for an integrated world

He credits his company's own success to a rich, high-tech start-up culture and a strong regional network of IT, automation, materials handling and robotics expertise. Festo also makes use of the region's comprehensive educational network that is developing skills to meet the demands of this new advanced manufacturing world - from programming and development to monitoring and maintenance. "We need to provide employees with the skills for an integrated world."

In addition, Festo works with up-and-coming start-ups that are always ready to bring innovative ideas to the table. "We see ourselves as an incubator of sorts," Hallett says.

It's all rather timely, given the shifts taking place in industrial markets, he adds. There are countless suppliers and small business owners in the region that have relied on the automotive sector for decades for their bread and butter.

Now they're ready to bring the same robotic advancements to healthcare, laboratory automation, life sciences, food production and retail, among others. "We are always collaborating to give the [automation and robotics] industry a boost as well as to develop a wider understanding of its importance."

And important it is. After all, this is a revolution.

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